Is it Wrong to Be Right? (Updated)

When we moved to the UK in the early 90s one of the several aspects of culture shock that we experienced was the plainness and forthrightness with which people spoke. I don’t know from experience that what we experienced was universal throughout the UK. We lived in what Americans would call a “college town” and perhaps there is as much difference between British college towns and other towns as there is between American college towns and other towns? Nevertheless, before that time I had not noticed how often I or other Americans prefaced remarks with the caveat, “It’s just my opinion but…” or “I might be wrong but….” When we returned to the USA I became more aware of this difference, of the way Americans feel pressured to preface their remarks this way. If we reflect for a moment, it’s obvious that most of the time it’s redundant to say “It’s just my opinion but….” Unless you are quoting someone else then of course it’s your opinion. Unless you are God, then of course you could be wrong. These things are obvious. Why then do we speak this way?

Here’s a theory: we bracket statements of opinion with these verbal buffers in order to be able to express a view but also to signal that we don’t want to be held fully responsible for what we just said. It could be a form of politeness but I wonder if the effect of such buffers and qualifiers is to suggest that none of us is ever really right about anything? I wonder if the corrosive effects of relativism are such that increasingly we are all being conformed to the pressure to signal not just finitude (“I could be wrong”) and the necessarily subjective element of every statement of opinion (“It’s just my opinion”) but to acquiesce to the idea that none of us is every really correct?

I raise this because one of the aspects of Reformed confessionalism that irks some (many?) evangelicals is the confidence or boldness with which we confess our understanding of the faith. “How can they be so sure they’re right?” When I began to attend a Reformed congregation (thank you St. John’s Reformed Church) there were two recent seminary grads leading the college group. They seemed to me to hold the essentially the same views but they expressed them differently. One was a little quieter and more tentative and the other more confident, direct, and even brash. At first I was put off by the latter. I think a few others were too. Later, however, I warmed to this teacher and came to see that there was a lot of substance beneath the style but why was I put off by the style? After all, he was right. Why did style matter more than substance? I think it was because I associated (and even confused) a certain rhetoric with piety. In point of fact I valued style over truth.

To anticipate an objection: This is not a defense for being a jerk. Humans are not God. We can’t know what he knows the way he knows it. God was in the beginning. We weren’t. God’s knowledge is qualitatively different from ours. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. Even God the Son incarnate, in his human nature, is said by Reformed theologians to possess a species of theology (theologia unionis) that belongs to creatures. We defined this view in distinction from our Lutheran brothers and sisters who don’t make the Creator/creature distinction in Christology the way we do. There are a few noisy, largely self-educated folk in the Reformed orbit who are either ignorant of this distinction or who, like a few ostensibly Reformed odd balls have rejected this basic Reformed doctrine (which, in RRC, I call the categorical distinction) thus causing them to think that they know things the way God does. It’s just about impossible to hold a fruitful conversation with people who have confused their intellect for God’s and thus I’ve largely given up on that project. For more on this see the essay “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology” in Pattern of Sound Doctrine. Because there is a categorical distinction we must always understand that we are only analogues. God cannot err but we can and do. God cannot sin but we can and do. If so, we poor, miserable sinners, have no ground for pride or arrogance.

There is, however, a distinction between godly humility and and ungodly relativism. I’m suggesting that one way in which Christians (both evangelical and Reformed) are capitulating to the spirit of the age is by confusing relativism for humility. Relativism leads one to say or imply that there is no truth or if there is, we can’t know it. Humility requires us to affirm the truth and to admit when we are wrong, i.e., out of accord with the truth. It would be prideful to refuse to admit sin or error. When I first came into contact with the Reformed faith I was wrong about an innumerable host of things. I’m grateful for my pastor and elders and college group leaders for putting up with me for so long and I’ve been wrong about a lot of things since. Nevertheless, it’s not humble to refuse to speak the truth when one knows it. Humility is not a subjective experience. It is measured by objective reality. The triune God is. He has revealed himself. He has entered into history in the incarnation. Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life.” Truth and reality are not utterly subjective. There is truth and there is error and we can and must know the difference between them.

There are right interpretations of Scripture and there are wrong interpretations of Scripture. At Nicea the church universal (catholic) said that the Arians and semi-Arians were wrong. Their interpretation erred. They began from bad (rationalist) premises which led them to heretical conclusions. They attempted to subject God’s Word to human reason.

There’s also a difference between private opinion and public truth. There’s a place for saying, “This is just my opinion” if by that caveat we mean to say that we’re just now about to say something which is not a matter of principle or not a matter of truth or not well considered or deeply held. If you ask me about cars I can give you an opinion but there is public truth, grounded in divine action and revelation, about which we Christians are so confident  that we’re willing to say, as we do, that anyone who disagrees with us is doomed to destruction. In the Athanasian Creed, we say “whosoever will be saved” must believe what we confess about the holy Trinity and the two natures of Christ. For more on this see the essay, “Whosoever Will Be Saved: Emerging Church Meet Christian Dogma” in Reforming or Conforming?

It is not okay to be a jerk. It is not okay to be a relativist but it is okay to be right, to believe the Word, to confess the Word, to teach the Word and even to interpret the Word with the church. It’s okay to be right.


Thanks to Greg Gibson for sending this appropriate video:

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